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Review of "Meaning, Mortality, and Choice"

By Phillip R. Shaver and Mario Mikulincer (Editors)
American Psychological Association, 2012
Review by Keith E. Davis, Ph. D. on Apr 16th 2013
Meaning, Mortality, and Choice

This is the fourth volume of the Herzliya Series on Personality and Social Psychology, all edited by Mario Mikulincer and Phillip R. Shaver and all published by the American Psychological Association. The editors are two of the most original and highly productive members of their generation in the world of personality and social psychology. Each is ranked among the top ten most productive scholars over the 1965 to 2000 period (In Quinones-Vidal, E.,   Lopez-Garcia, J. J., Penaranda-Ortega, & Tortosa-Gil, F. (2004). The nature of social and personality psychology as reflected in JPSP, 1965-2000. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 435-452. They began their collaborative work with experimental tests of some of the foundational assumptions of attachment theory in 2001 and have been frequently collaborators since that period.  Mikulincer had one of the best funded psychological research centers in the world—first at Bar-Ilan University and subsequently as Dean of the School of Psychology at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) at Herzliya.  The IDC was a magnet for graduate students, post-docs, and visiting faculty from around the world.  Although most of their empirical and theoretical work has dealt with the implications of attachment theory and expansion of its relevance to new areas (mindfulness, tolerance of pain, PTSD), the Herzliya conferences have allowed them to expanded their focus to prosocial behavior, human aggression, and morality—each receiving a conference and separate volume in the series.

The present volume addresses the four central givens of existence as summarized by Yolam (1980): "The problem of death and finitude, the threat of meaninglessness, the challenge of freedom, and the pain of existential isolation" (p.3). The volume is organized into five sections after the introduction. Each of the first four sections is devoted to chapters dealing with one of the four givens of existence, and the fifth section is devoted to philosophical/clinical attempts to deal constructively with these existential concerns.  The contributors are largely well-recognized figures in their fields that still have something of interest to say with respect to the issues of meaning, mortality, and choice. The editors are to be commended for the very high standards of the scholarship, creativity, and written expression. This edited volume, in contrast to so many, is a delight to read, and one finds interesting ideas, arguments, and data throughout.  It would be an excellent source for an undergraduate honors course, a graduate seminar, or for the intelligent laymen interested in these issues.

Let me summarize some of the highlights and then turn to the few nits that I have to pick. The first six chapters are devoted to death and the ways in which people cope with anxiety about death.  Terror Management Theory (TMT) lies at the heart of most of these papers.  Greenberg explains the origin of TMT in Becker's (1973) The Denial of Death, and presents new research showing how TMT has been related to brain activation, and its implication for emotional disorders, aging, and the desire for fame. Mikulincer & Shaver tackle the question of just why death is so terrifying. Their new research suggestion that conditions that stimulate feelings of helplessness is part of what causes terror. Goldenberg uses TMT to organize a broad body of issues including discomfort with bodily functions (eating & sex), condemnation and objectification of women's bodies, and compliance with health maintenance recommendations—all new areas of relevance for TMT.

The second section has five chapters dealing with aspects of the threat of meaninglessness. Park & Edmonson examine the role that religious belief and practices play in restoring to one's life following a significant trauma or negative life experience. Taubman explores the role of positive life events, such as becoming a parent or grand parent, in creating opportunities for personal growth and a greater sense of meaning to one's life. Two chapters propose that the search for meaning does not always have positive effects. Landau  et al., report on studies in which induced threats of meaninglessness increase the likelihood of scapegoating others. Kruglanski et al., take this issue further by showing that when individual methods of finding meaning seem insufficient, individuals will adopt a collectivist ideology and if it is associated with support for killing members of an enemy group, that may lead to embracing suicide bombing.  This section offers an important balance of the positive and negative implications of a search for meaning.

The third section consists of four chapters dealing with various aspects of the challenges of human freedom. Freedom of choice and personal autonomy both contain significant opportunities and important responsibilities. Because we expect people to know what they are doing and why, most of the time, we hold them accountable for the results of their actions. We expect them to be able to give a sufficient rationale for their actions and not to say, "I just felt like it; or I don't know, it was just an impulse." These responses may get by in matters of taste but not in matters of prudence, appropriateness, or truthfulness.  Ryan and his colleagues summarize self-determination theory and its implications for human's abilities relevant to choice and autonomy. They also report on a large body of evidence that persons who are high in their sense of self-determination are more successful in attaining their personal and collective goals, more prosocial in their behavior toward others, more connected to others and more vital and alive. This is one of the most important chapters in the volume and one showing the value of a respectful scientific approach to the study of these existential issues. The other chapters make contributions to (a) the role of positive and negative conditional regard as hindrances to the development of a sense of self-determination, (b) the role of Buddhist mindful practices in the enhancement of freedom, and (c) the fact that too many options/choices can be disturbing to effective behavior, reducing the person to a passive "picker" rather than an active "chooser."

The fourth section has three chapters that bring different theoretical perspectives to bear on the price and pain of social isolation. Shaver and Mikulincer present a tour de force review of research showing that the provision of a sense of security anchored in a loving relationship will mitigate many of the existential concerns reviewed in the earlier chapters.  Worries about lack of freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness automatically activate desires for being close to loved ones. As they comment, this research contradicts Sartre's famous claim that "hell is other people." This chapter alone is worth the price of the volume.

Kipling Williams reviews the implications of several years of studies of social exclusion and ostracism. This research convincing shows that being excluded from joint, meaningful activities makes one more vulnerable to group influence and to engaging in aggression toward other persons. The final chapter in this section is by Joiner and Silva  and it presents a theory of suicide that integrates three risk facts to provide a comprehensive analysis of who is likely to engaged in suicide attempts and why. These three factors are (a) a sense of being a burden to loved ones, (b) feeling isolated, and (c) having learned to tolerate pain and injury. This chapter is unusual for the breadth of evidence that it brings to bear.

The final section of the book consists of three chapters by authors who have developed comprehensive theories of how to engage in successful therapeutic interventions with the four major existential concerns. Schneider illustrates how existential therapy is conducted with a detailed case example. The crucial process is one of transforming the existential threats into opportunities for growth and vitality. In the chapter by Robert and Lisa Firestone, existential and psychoanalytic resources are integrated to create two therapeutic perspectives: Separation theory and voice theory. Separation theory deals with how early experience leads to defensiveness and how that gets reinforced through repeated developmental experiences. Voice theory helps the client to deal with these maladaptive defenses by rejecting fantasy bonds and replacing them with realistic and supportive attachment bonds. Yovel and Noa Bigman explain acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). They view ACT as a means of choosing and acting on core values without being preoccupied with negative thoughts and fantasies. As the editors note, their views are consistent with those of Buddhist psychology.  Solomon wraps up the volume with a thoughtful overview and summary of major areas of agreement and disagreement among the chapter authors.

What are the limitations of the volume? The major one, in my view, is the failure to take on the conflict between the core positive message of the existential philosophers and psychologists and the standard view of the essentials of the scientific point of view. As conventionally understood, the existentialists see human choice as both a real and an unavoidable aspect of the human condition. Most educated Westerners see human choice as an illusion, a comforting idea supporting human vanity but totally misguided. Despite the several empirical studies showing the positive effects on human behavior to believe in having choice vs. not (see Baumeister,  Masicampo,  & DeWall, 2009; Bergner & Ramon, [in press], & Vohs & Schooler, 2011), it remains the conviction of many, if not most, psychological scientists that human choice is an illusion and that to do respectable science one must believe in determinism (Bargh, 2008;Wegner, 2002). Ossorio (1978) has shown in an elegant way what is wrong with this position. He does so by showing that the deterministic formulation of human behavior is equivalent to a status degradation on the concept of a person.  In Garfinkel's (1967) presentation of the social practice of status degradation ceremonies, he noted that they require the following conditions to be met: (a) a community with shared values, (b) individuals occupying three logical roles—perpetrator, denouncer, and witnesses, (c) the denouncer's accusation that the perpetrator had violated a core community value, and (d) that the violation was not to  be excused. (e) If the witnesses accept the denouncer's claims, then the perpetrator was (f) degraded in the sense that he was not one of us and thus no longer eligible to be a member of the community in good standing. How is this relevant to the determinism vs. freedom of choice debate?

The determinist's position is that in making choices among my everyday behaviors, I am really not choosing but engage in behaviors by doing what is antecedently determined by unknown causes. Thus you are not responsible for your behavior, nor for your belief that you can distinguish what is the case from what is not (truth from error). And all of this applies to all of us, including me, all of the time. In short, the determinist tells us that none of us is really one of us—or ever really was one of us. At this point we see that the determinist's position is neither true nor false, but merely ridiculous. And doing good psychological science does not require us to adhere to some ridiculous dictum.



Bargh, J. A. (2008). Free will is un-natural. In J. Baer, J. Kaufman, & R. F. Baumeister (Eds.), Are we free? Psychology and free will. (pp. 128-154). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Baumeister, R. F., Masicampo, E. J., & DeWall, C. N. (2009). Prosocial benefits of feeling free: Disbelief in free will increases aggression and reduces helpfulness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 260-268.

Becker, E. (1973). The Denial of death. New York, NY: The Free Press.

Bergner, R. M. & Ramon, A. (in press). Some implications of beliefs in altruism, free will, and nonreductionism.  Journal of Social Psychology,

Garfinkel, H. (1967). Conditions of successful degradation ceremonies. In J. G. Manis & B. N. Meltzer (Eds.), Symbolic interaction: A reader in social psychology. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Quinones-Vidal, E.,   Lopez-Garcia, J. J., Penaranda-Ortega, & Tortosa-Gil, F. (2004). The nature of social and personality psychology as reflected in JPSP, 1965-2000. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 435-452.

Ossorio, P. G. (1978/2005). "What actually happens." The representation of real world phenomena.( Vol. 5. The collected works of Peter G. Ossorio). Ann Arbor, MI: The Descriptive Psychology Press.

Vohs, K. & Schooler, J. (2011). The value of believing in free will. Psychological Science, 19, 49-54.

Wegner, D. (2002). The illusion of conscious will. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Yolam, I. (1980). Existential  psychotherapy. New York, NY: Basic Books.


© 2013 Keith E. Davis


Keith E. Davis, Ph. D., Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Department of Psychology, University of South Carolina, Columbia.